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    American prisons become political and religious battleground over Muslim inmates ISLAM BEHIND BARS By Rachel Zoll, Associated Press, 6/4/05
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 5, 2005
      American prisons become political and religious battleground over
      Muslim inmates

      By Rachel Zoll, Associated Press, 6/4/05

      Muslim inmate Mark Anthony Aikens, in white, hugs fellow Muslim
      inmate Ricardo Searles after weekly Friday worship in a room used as a
      makeshift mosque at Rikers Island prison in New York. U.S. Muslim
      leaders say Islam is most likely to win American converts in prison.
      (Stephan Savoia/The Associated Press )

      NEW YORK - It's Friday on Rikers Island, time for weekly worship for
      nearly a quarter of the city jail's 14,000 inmates.

      The men, Muslims, file quietly into a classroom of white
      cinderblock that serves as their mosque. Incense burns to chase away a
      sour smell from the hall, as the inmates sit quietly on sheets stamped
      ''Department of Corrections'' covering the linoleum floor.

      Imam Menelik Muhammad is delivering the day's sermon. As he stands
      beneath a Quranic prayer on the wall facing Mecca, he urges the
      prisoners to reform. ''You will not be considered a Muslim,'' he
      admonishes, ''unless people are considered safe from your hands and
      your tongue.''

      Across the United States, tens of thousands of Muslims are
      practicing their faith behind bars. Islam is most likely to win
      American converts there, according to U.S. Muslim leaders, and the
      religion has for decades been a regular part of prison culture.

      But the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have brought new scrutiny to Muslim
      inmates, many of whom are black men focused on surviving
      incarceration. While prison chaplains of various denominations argue
      that Islam offers a spiritual path to rehabilitation, others say it
      has the potential to turn felons into terrorists. The FBI calls
      prisons ''fertile ground for extremists.''

      The reality is harder to read: Those on opposing sides have such
      divergent views they seem irreconcilable. Who's right matters not only
      for national security, but for the development of American Islam
      itself, which is struggling to be accepted alongside the major faiths
      in the United States.

      Ever since the 2002 arrest of Jose Padilla, a felon and American
      Muslim convert who authorities say planned a ''dirty bomb''
      radiological attack after he left jail, law enforcement officials,
      politicians and even a few evangelical leaders have warned that Muslim
      inmates are ripe for terrorist recruitment.

      Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, has said: ''Wahhabi
      influence is inculcating them with the same kind of militant ideas
      that drove the 9-11 hijackers to kill thousands of Americans.''
      Wahhabism is a strict form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, which
      was home to 15 of the 19 hijackers.

      Chuck Colson, founder of the evangelical Prison Fellowship
      Ministries and a Nixon administration official, predicted that
      ''radical Islamists will use prisons, packed with angry and resentful
      men,'' to avenge Islam.

      ''Prisons continue to be fertile ground for extremists who
      exploit both a prisoner's conversion to Islam while still in prison,
      as well as their socio-economic status and placement in the community
      upon their release,'' FBI Director Robert Mueller said Feb. 16 to the
      U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee.

      Prison chaplains and others say such warnings are dangerously ignorant.

      In interviews with The Associated Press, chaplains, prison
      volunteers, correctional officials, inmates and former inmates all
      insisted that there was no evidence of terrorist recruitment by
      Muslims in their prisons - although banned pamphlets and books
      sometimes slip in.

      Chaplains describe the typical inmate convert as a poor, black
      American upset about racism, not Mideast politics, or someone who
      turned to Islam to cope with imprisonment. When they get out, these
      men are so overwhelmed by alcoholism or poverty that the crimes they
      are most likely to commit are the ones that landed them in jail to
      begin with, chaplains say.

      ''They don't care about Osama bin Laden,'' said Imam Talib Abdur
      Rashid, who worked for years as a chaplain in New York state's prison
      system. ''They have their own beefs that have nothing to do with
      shariah [Islamic law], the Taliban or Wahhabism, and everything to do
      with slavery, segregation and the history of U.S. racism.''

      Just defining the scope of the Islamic presence behind bars in the
      United States is tricky.

      Though on the federal level they account for about 6 percent of
      roughly 150,000 inmates, there are no nationwide statistics on Muslims
      in state prisons.

      Experts believe the largest numbers in state prisons can be found
      in New York, where Muslims are roughly 18 percent of the 63,700
      inmates; Pennsylvania, where the figure is about 18 percent out of
      41,100; and California, where state officials don't tally religious
      affiliation but the figure could easily be in the thousands.

      The bottom line is that the percentage of American Muslims in
      prison is almost certainly higher than it is in the general
      population, where the number of Muslims could be as high as 6 million,
      or roughly 2 percent.

      Islam took hold in prison in the 1940s, through the Nation of
      Islam. Leaders of the religious movement, which mixes Muslim
      traditions with black nationalism, were imprisoned for refusing to
      fight in World War II and, as a result, their teaching spread behind
      bars. Among their most famous prison recruits was Malcolm X.

      Another boom came two decades later, when Muslim inmates sued
      prison administrators, accusing them of violating religious freedoms.
      The inmates won, and transformed jailhouse practice of all faiths.

      Starting in the 1980s, get-tough sentencing laws filled jails with
      a disproportionate number of blacks, leading to another spike in
      conversion. But by this time, many blacks who once belonged to the
      Nation of Islam had embraced orthodox Islam instead - and that is what
      the majority of inmates practice today.

      Or, at least they say they do.

      Some inmates become Muslim in name only, either to seek protection
      from prison gangs, enjoy privileges like holiday meals, or escape the
      monotony of prison life through classes and weekly worship. Mika'il
      DeVeaux, a Muslim convert who spent 25 years in New York prisons for
      murder, encountered inmates who converted but had little or no
      understanding of the religion. One inmate, he recalled, thought
      converting would allow him to circumvent prison rules and wear a hat
      that looked like a turban.

      But for some prisoners, the change is authentic, and correctional
      officials say Islamic observance actually helps them maintain prison

      Said Anthony Windle, who converted to Islam at Rikers Island while
      awaiting trial on a drug conspiracy charge: ''The more you learn, the
      harder it is for somebody to feed you untruths and lead you in the
      wrong direction.''

      Duval Rafq, who was convicted of rape and became Muslim two years
      into his Connecticut prison sentence, said converting led him to
      accept responsibility for his crime. Released five years ago, he
      worships at Masjid Al-Islam in New Haven, and works while attending
      night school for heating and refrigeration repair.

      ''My behavior all of a sudden changed and other people's attitude
      and behavior toward me changed,'' Rafq said.



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